Sex workers further marginalised during pandemic

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It is easy to forget the struggles of others whilst we are preoccupied with our own. The recent Covid-19 lockdown has pushed some women in our local communities even further into the shadows, as the government fails to account for the unique needs of marginalised women, leaving sex workers, ex-offenders and the female homeless poverty-stricken and highly vulnerable. Not only this, but the taboo that continues to surround their predicaments, is stifling a much-needed conversation.

Many female sex workers rely on their work for a livelihood, including single mothers with children to support. The reduction in demand for the industry over lockdown has left many penniless and still more struggling with dangerous drug and alcohol dependencies or unstable housing arrangements. One Leeds-based charity that offers support to sex workers encourages women to “consider alternative options within the industry” such as web-cams, phones and online chat rooms; however, this is not a feasible option for many.

The struggles of these women are compounded by the fact that lockdown conditions have made support much harder for local organisations to provide. Whilst they are continuing to provide sexual health support, the need to protect self-isolating staff means pressure on their services is exacerbated and emergency appointments are prioritised over regular check-ins. One local organisation I spoke to has continued its work in supporting individuals with drug and alcohol abuse problems, but has had to close their in-person hubs and navigate the tricky transition to delivering support meetings online via Zoom; a less personal and arguably less effective method of communication.

The current climate makes the already dangerous sex-work industry an even riskier environment for women but, given the five-week waiting period for applicants receiving universal credit, many face an impossible decision between work or going hungry.

The Leeds City Council website recently spoke of its intention to use “every legal power at our disposal to stop anyone wishing to sell or buy sex” as part of its response to the pandemic, implying a distinct lack of empathy for women who need to work to support themselves and their families. Whilst preventing the likelihood of virus transmission is based in good intentions, the approach fails to acknowledge or take account of the new problems this creates. If women feel they will be criminalised for working, they are much less likely to call for help when they find themselves on the receiving end of sexual abuse or violence – something that is very much a reality in this line of work.

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A recent independent review into Leeds’s Holbeck district – a geographical area within which female sex workers will not be prosecuted by the police within a set daily time-frame – sung the praises of this initiative that aims to decriminalise and de-stigmatise sex workers. But despite these successful initiatives, sex work continues to be illegal in the UK.

This not only makes support for vulnerable women more difficult to come by, but it also makes the subject highly taboo, even amongst those who are doing the most to support sex workers. One local organisation I spoke to for this article, was reluctant to comment on the topic, feeling that they must tread with extreme caution when funded by or affiliated to local councils.

This stigma also surrounds female offenders and ex-offenders in the community, who are similarly marginalised. The transition from prison back into the community is particularly difficult for women who have only abusive and unsafe homes to return to. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2017, 38 per cent of England’s homeless household applicants were women, and women are much more likely to be ‘hidden homeless’ – sleeping out of sight in the interests of safety, and feeling unsafe seeking refuge in male-dominated hostels. A halfway hostel for female ex-offenders refused an interview, citing the current political climate which is unsympathetic to rehabilitation, particularly in the wake of the London terror attack that took place at a rehabilitative event late last year.

Reluctance to be critical of public agencies is also evident here. The hostile environment surrounding both female offenders and sex workers is effectively silencing organisations that are trying to help them towards a safer path, and consequently, pushing marginalised women even further into the shadows.

Times of crisis often exploit existing inequalities and a one-size-fits-all approach to managing the pandemic cannot account for the breadth and depth of the needs of a diverse population. Covid-19 has exposed the particular problems women face and the government’s ‘gender-neutral’ approach has put the onus on local organisations and charities to pick up the slack in helping marginalised women instead. In April, a number of Leeds-based organisations signed an open letter to the prime minister, urging the government to consider the different needs of women and factor them into their response. The letter stressed the need for women-only hostels, ‘gender-specialist’ support and greater female representation in the virus response effort.

Despite the difficulties that the pandemic poses for the provision of support services, they still continue to be a vital lifeline for many. The worrying lack of attention being paid to the needs of vulnerable and stigmatised women, coupled with publicly funded organisations’ fear of saying the wrong thing, begs the question of how care models can improve if they cannot be properly scrutinised or spoken about in the public domain. We must be prepared to afford vulnerable women the same amount of protection, support and compassion as we would anyone else.

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